The eighth day of the nine night Navratri festival is celebrated across India as Durga Ashtami (October 20th 2015), and is also part of the ten-day Durga-Puja festival celebrated primarily in the state of West Bengal. Ashtami simply means eighth day of the fortnight. It is often also ascribed significance with respect to the eight-armed Durga holding weapons to destroy her enemies and bless those who seek her protection.
Durga Ashtami Traditions
One tradition that originated in North India, and associated with Durgashtami, is the honoring of kanjaks in the home. A group of young, unmarried girls – usually five or seven – are invited into the home of the family wishing to honor them. The tradition is based on the belief that each of these young girls, kanjaks (कंजक), represents the energy, or shakti of Durga incarnate on Earth. The group is welcomed by a ceremonial washing of the feet, seated in the home and honored with chanting of mantras. This is followed by a ceremonial meal of puris (fried bread), halwa (sweetened cream of wheat), and chole (chickpeas), among other treats. The celebrants are then honored with small gifts and clothes, particularly chunnis – a scarf-like garment worn with the traditional salwar kameez worn by young girls. I remember vividly, this celebration being repeated every year in my home on the venerated day of Durga Ashtami!
“Durga Mahisasuramardini” by Unknown – picture of the “Guler School”,.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Goddess Durga and Her Energies
As Navratri and Durga Puja draw to their close, it may be worthwhile to reflect on the spiritual significance of the Goddess energies in our daily lives. Traditionally, the focus of the festival(s) is on the energy of Durga (दुर्गा) – she, “who is difficult to attain”. For those of us who have been fortunate to visit Durga’s most venerated shrines, Vaishno Devi, we know that this is literally true. When taken by foot, the journey up the mountain, to seek a glimpse of the Devi, is not for the faint of heart. The metaphor of ‘scaling the mountain’ to be near the one ‘who is difficult to attain’, is certainly not lost on me. As we try to scale the proverbial ‘spiritual mountain’ by overcoming lust, anger, greed and attachment within ourselves, we discover that we need guidance and protection.
And that perhaps, is the true significance of Durga, and the festivals that honor and venerate here. Yes, she is mahishasur mardini – the slayer of the demon mahishasur who had tormented the sages for eons. But, if we internalize the lesson, her victory over the outer demon can be transformed and applied by us to achieve inner victories – with her grace. Yes, she is vyaapti devi – that of inherent and inseparable presence in all (as of oil in sesame seed, heat in fire). And how blessed would we be if we felt her inseparable presence in all our endeavors, and acted appropriately and accordingly. Yes, she is vritti devi – that which governs our mode of life or conduct, course of action, and especially, moral conduct. How many blessings will we gain and share with others, if our moral conduct, our life, becomes a shining light, to honor Durga, giver of all power and energy to perform righteous action.
Durga Ashtami – Spiritual Significance
So, Durga Ashtami can be a time to meditate on, and be in Durga awareness. It can be a time for us to divest, to get rid of all the life energy that leads us to inner destruction. It can be a celebration where we renew our commitment to actions that venerate Durga, and ALL the feminine energy around us.
I invite you to join me, and celebrate Durga Ashtami, both outwardly and inwardly. Honor the feminine. It is my firm belief, derived from our scriptures, our traditions and our celebrations – that the salvation of our culture, our way of life, our society, firmly rests upon it.
In closing, let us chant this mantra, with reverence to the Mother…
ya devi sarvabhutesHu, maatri devyayi samsthita,
namastasyai, namastasyai, namastasyai namo namah!
या देवी सर्वभूतेषु मातृ देव्ययी संस्थित: ।
नमस्तस्यी नमस्तस्यी नमस्तस्यी नमो नम: ।।
to that Devi who is omniscient in all, who resides as the Mother in all,
I bow three times – in body, mind, and soul – may She be ever venerated!
How do you celebrate Durga during Navratari and Durga Puja? What is the spiritual significance of these celebrations for you? Please share in the comments below. Thank you!